Crash is not the source of the 2005 Best Picture film; it is, however, the source of a movie made by David Cronenberg of Naked Lunch fame. The plot is simple: a man (identified as James Ballard, ostensibly the author) is involved in a car crash in which the other driver is killed and the driver's wife seriously injured. Ensuing events lead Ballard, as well as the driver's widow, to meet Vaughan, a shady once-semi-famous television star now obsessed with car crashes. Ballard, the widow, Vaughan, and others form a casual group of car crash fetishists, who drive around visiting crashes they discover on a police scanner, and designing gruesome and erotic crashes for actresses and famous figures. In turn, Ballard has crazy automobile sex with every (yes, every) character in the novel, and Vaughan finally dies in a car crash meant also to kill Elizabeth Taylor.
Understandably, this book caused a bit of controversy when it was published, controversy that was fomented on a larger stage by the release of Cronenberg's film (which puzzlingly stars James Spader and Holly Hunter). I have some sympathy for those who object to this novel, as I'll explain later, but my larger objection is this:
Crash is boring. Its conceit sounds promising, I think, but instead of dealing with any of the deeper issues that exist at the nexus of sex and violence, Ballard provides a litany of gross-out images and blankly pansexual and unreflecting characters. He has nothing to say about, say, the way that looking into our own death molds our understanding of what is exciting, or the parallels between the sexual act and violence (it has been suggested by feminist scholars that the sexual act itself resembles and symbolizes violence), or the conflation of sex, power, and technology in the modern era. This book is so unconcerned with deeper issues and unexplanatory of the origin of the character's fetishes that it approaches the level of pornography, not only for its graphicness but because it seems to lack insight as a stylistic choice. The sex is mildly disturbing, but also banal. For a book about thrills, it is unexplicably thrill-less.
As for the controversy, in most cases I'm suspicious of such claims. Usually they're ill-informed, prudish, or artless. In this case, I think, there is one serious objection to the content of Crash: Instead of creating an actress to be the focus of Vaughan's insane fantasies, Ballard uses Elizabeth Taylor, who would have been in her early forties at the time of this publication (and whom I thought was dead until looking it up on Wikipedia). The fantasies are at times disturbingly graphic, referencing not only the most intimate parts of Taylor's anatomy but alluding to various imaginary wounds to those parts of her body. It seems to me that while most content is permissible in a novel, books that deal so frankly with sexual and violent fantasies concerning real people ought to be condemned. In Crash's case, Taylor is presented as a cipher for fame with no real qualities as a character; why couldn't Ballard have used a fictional person if their character doesn't matter?
But Crash isn't really concerned with thought processes like that; it's more of a dull fever dream that you float through unawares. If you want to read a book like this, read Palahniuk instead, whose third-rate hackery is much more interesting.
P.S.: Here's an angle I forgot to cover: What is the point of Ballard using his own name for the main character? To suggest that this mirrors his own life? I tried to think of all the books I've read where the author includes themself as a character (Money, Everything is Illuminated, Absurdistan), and I can't think of any as unabashedly unnecessary and egotistical as this one.
P.S.S. check out that stickshift-penis in the picture.